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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Lewars, Jessy (1778 — 1855)

The last of the poet's heroines, Jessy Lewars was the youngest daughter of John Lewars, Supervisor of Excise at Dumfries. After her father's death in 1789 she lived with her brother John, the younger, who was a brother Excise officer of Burns. Their house was in Mill Vennel, now Burns Street, immediately opposite the Burns home. Jessy was friendly with both Robert and Jean. When in the Lewars' house, the poet heard Jessy singing a once popular song 'the Robin cam' to the Wren's Nest' and composed for the air his own words 'O wert thou in the cauld blast'.

During the illness which relentlessly wore the poet down during the last 6 months of his life, the 18 year old Jessy helped to nurse him. Even on this, his last illness, and under the eyes of his wife, Burns whipped himself into a state of poetic passion over Jessy, fancing himself in love with her. 'O wert thou in the cauld blast', a splendid song, sounds the note of genuine passion. 'Talk not to me of savages', in which the poet takes 'Jessy's lovely hand' in his, 'a mutual faith to plight', does not. In 'Here's a health to ane I love dear', the second stanza admits the hopelessness of the poet's passion for Jessy:

"Altho' thou maun never be mine,
Altho' even hope is denied;
'Tis sweeter for thee despairing
Than aught in the world beside — Jessy."

In June 1796, Burns wrote to Johnson in Edinburgh: 'My wife has a very particular friend of hers, a young lady who sings well, to whom she wishes to present The Scots Musical Museum. If you have a spare copy, will you be so obliging as to send it by the first Fly, as I am anxious to have it soon.' Johnson did as he was asked and Burns inserted on the back of the title page of the first volume, the lines beginning:

"Thine be the volumes, Jessy fair,
And with them take the Poet's prayer: -
That fate may in her fairest page,
With every kindliest, best presage
Of future bliss, enrol thy name..."

Jessy Lewars looked after the poet's 4 small boys for a time after Burns's death. Robert, the eldest, remained with her a year.

Long after Burns's death, Jessy Lewars gave Chambers her account of the poet. It testified to Burns's simple and temperate habits: 'as far as circumstances left Burns to his own inclinations, he was always anxious that his wife should have a neat and genteel appearance. In consequence, as she alleged, of the duties of nursing, and attending to her infants, she could not help being sometimes a little out of order. Burns disliked this and not only remonstrated against it in a gentle way, but did the utmost that in him lay to counteract it by buying for her the best clothes he could afford. She was, for instance, one of the first persons in Dumfries who appeared in a dress of gingham — a stuff now common, but, as its first introduction, rather costly and almost exclusively used by persons of superior conditions.'

Jessy Lewars married James Thomson, a writer in Dumfries, in June 1799, and had 5 sons and 2 daughters. She was buried in St Michael's Churchyard, Dumfries, not far from Burns's own grave.

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Complete Burns Songs

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